The least brands can do is make sure their corporate feminism is slightly digestible.
It’s summer 2015 in Karachi and the culture of pret fashion is becoming more and more influential. Clothing brands like J., Ideas, Al Karam and Satrangi have launched entire pret collections for Ashura: translating another tragedy into a means of capitalisation.
I was a part of the content team at a well-known digital agency at the time, so my job was to come up with titles for a black and white collection but without mentioning that it was targeted for Ashura.
They asked me to paint it in colourful French vocabulary that would sound fancy but also not be comprehensible for many. I ended up calling the collection ‘Monochrome’ but still wasn’t very proud of it.
Since then, pret clothing has become the only way of life for the upper middle class Pakistani woman — unless she can’t find her size, which is often.
Names like Generation then tapped into that market and revamped themselves as the ideal place for women to buy plus-size, ready-made clothing from.
We had heard of our mothers loving Generation, but it took us a while to understand their very unique aesthetic and start admiring it.
Very recently, Generation, did a whole marketing campaign towards the education sector. The art and marketing team must have been under a lot of pressure after a couple of very successful social media campaigns revolving around issues like water scarcity, disability, body image issues and no-make up faces.
So, Generation did what it does best: think out of the box.
The campaign features a school teacher wearing three-piece suits that cost between almost Rs7,000 and Rs9,000. This sparked a debate on social media, where people disclosed salaries they had earned over the years as teachers.
Ultimately, it can be concluded that teachers’ salaries in Pakistan are not sufficient enough to be able to buy a single outfit worth Rs7,000 when the average salary of a Pakistani teacher is around Rs19,000, according to popular consensus from those who spoke up.
The images also feature a box full of chalk and a blackboard in the background — which further goes on to indicate that the school is not a very affluent one because very few elite schools have chalkboards anymore.
This photoshoot appears to be, at best, a misrepresentation of a schoolteacher’s life. It seems to fetishise the aesthetic of a blackboard and a woman whose hair has gone gray in the process of teaching. More than that, most women working in schools like that still don’t get paid their worth.
It’s a classic example of a brand positioning its product to capitalise on a working class aesthetic while the price point clearly falls into the upper-middle category. It says, “Hey, we want to be inclusive, but will still have a price range that isn’t.”
Khadija Rehman, the creative director for Generation, was quite surprised when I mentioned to her what audiences took away from the photoshoot. “We did not really think of the imagery this way, we were just doing a ‘back-to-school’ campaign like a lot of brands do around this time of the year, internationally.”
Upon mentioning the Twitter backlash, she accepted that maybe the positioning might’ve been a bit misplaced, but a high-end three-piece suit would cost around the amount even if one purchases them from lawn collections.
Growing up in a family of teachers, this image struck me because it’s so distant from the reality of female teachers in Pakistan.
A mother of two, after a Master’s degree, earning Rs35,000 in one of the elite schools of Pakistan, paying Rs5,000 for her commute in a city where a woman’s mobility is extremely restricted, getting groceries and managing the house would not have the luxury of spending that amount of money on clothes.
They wait for bachat committees to splurge or, rather, just end up at Raabi Centre, Hyderi or Qurtaba Market to get similar clothes stitched and maintain an affordable aesthetic too.
Earlier this summer, Zara Shahjahan, a luxury brand, was called out for its over-the-top price labels and basic designs whose only recurring aesthetic is a vintage vibe that remains constant from collection to collection.
This can be justified for a brand that only caters to a very niche audience and places itself in the high-end category. Meanwhile, Generation presents itself as an accessible and affordable brand, which is why the price range supposedly aimed at teachers comes in bad taste.
This is not the first time a Pakistani fashion brand has been tone-deaf and offensive to a certain group of individuals. Last year, Sana Safinaz took fashion marketing to a new low by using people of the Maasai tribe in their cultural attire as props for its lawn photoshoot. The entire campaign was so obviously racist and elitist that social media put the brand on blast, but sadly the campaign and the photoshoot were not retracted.
With Generation, I agree, that’s just how the industry works, but my issue is with the romance that underpins the whole campaign: the captions indicate that being a teacher is no fun unless you buy a dress this expensive, or that the stress of being exploited would go away if you just style the same pale outfits and cuts that have been so overdone this year.
An antique wooden table, chalkboard and a vintage hairstyle might give your brand aesthetic, but it doesn’t make an inclusive fashion statement, nor is it fashion-forward. Even though Generation does try to jump on every woke wagon, it has done nothing but incite social media outrage by teachers who have been exploited in a profession that is noble and involves social responsibility.
The least brands like Generation can do is make sure their corporate feminism is slightly digestible.